Let's Give Them Something to Talk About
Back in 1969, a record 21.4 million Americans tuned in to "The Tonight Show" to watch the novelty act known as Tiny Tim marry a 17-year-old fan he called "Miss Vicki"—and the next day everyone was talking about it. Here, for Tiny Tim's birthday, is more on that and other televised moments that had viewers buzzing from coast to coast.
Tiny Tim Tiptoes to the Alter on "The Tonight Show"
On December 17, 1969, the ukulele-strumming, falsetto-singing oddity Tiny Tim—whose signature song, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," was a surprise Top 20 hit—married Victoria "Miss Vicki" Budinger in the presence of God, Johnny Carson and more than 20 million viewers. The televised ceremony was a strangely subdued affair, with the 37-year-old groom and his 17-year-old bride reciting their vows before a somber minister on a stage filled with 10,000 tulips imported from Holland. Although the marriage did produce one child—a girl named Tulip—the couple divorced in 1977.
Ellen Comes Out
Generating enormous publicity even before it aired, Ellen DeGeneres' 1997 coming-out-as-gay moment on "Ellen" was a huge ratings success, won multiple awards and became a cultural touchstone of the decade. Still, the two-part episode wasn't enough to save the series, which was cancelled the following season. DeGeneres, of course, went on to even greater success as host of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," where she's free to fully be herself.
Capturing the One-Armed Man
From 1963 to 1967, poor Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) grimaced his way through 120 episodes of "The Fugitive." Accused of murdering his wife, he drifted from town to town in search of the real killer, a mysterious stranger with one arm. Back then, there were no grand finales in television—a series was simply cancelled and disappeared. But "The Fugitive" changed all that with its groundbreaking two-part conclusion (in which—spoiler alter—the one-armed man confesses). Its final episode, which aired on August 29, 1967, was the most-watched episode of a TV series episode up to that time.
The Original "Survivor"
The premise sounded absurd: Strand 16 real-life contestants on a remote island for 39 days, put them through rigorous physical and mental challenges and, at the end of each episode, convene a "Tribal Council" where contestants must vote off one of their tribemates. By the first season's August 2000 finale, however, "Survivor" was America's most talked-about show, with more than 125 million viewers tuning in to watch the nefarious double-dealing contestant Richard Hatch walk off the island with $1 million as the last person standing.
A Groundbreaking Kiss
On November 22, 1968, "Star Trek" made history with American TV's first interracial kiss as Captain Kirk (William Shatner) locked lips with Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichol). Network execs had demanded that two versions of the scene be filmed—one without the kiss for broadcast in the South. Shatner played along until the camera rolled and then sabotaged the proceedings with a series of bloopers. When Comedy Central roasted the actor in 2006, Nichols got a huge laugh when she said to him, "Let's make TV history again—and you can kiss my black ass!"
Lucy Has a Baby
When "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" aired on January 19, 1953, it wasn't just "I Love Lucy" viewers who were breathlessly watching. In fact, star Lucille Ball's real-life pregnancy had been a topic of national conversation for the previous nine months. So when the fictional Lucy Ricardo finally gave birth to "Little Ricky," 71.9 percent of America's TV sets were tuned in. Just 12 hours before the broadcast, the real Lucy gave birth to her first child, Desi Arnaz, Jr.
Luke and Laura's Wedding
It would ignite protests now, but when rapist Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) married his victim Laura Webber (Genie Francis), 30 million "General Hospital" fans celebrated. Elizabeth Taylor appeared in a cameo on the episode, which aired November 17, 1981. Princess Diana sent champagne. People Magazine and Newsweek put the soap opera couple on their covers. And despite the subsequent murders and affairs and illnesses plaguing their relationship, Luke and Laura stayed together until their 2001 divorce.
"Where's the Beef?"
The catchphrase featured in a 1984 Wendy's hamburger commercial went viral before the world knew what "going viral" was. Served a puny burger from a competing fast-food chain, 84-year-old Clara Peller irascibly demanded, "Where's the beef?"—three words that made the retired manicurist an instant star. Wendy's sales jumped 31 percent to $945 million, and "Where's the beef?" was quoted everywhere. Vice President Walter Mondale even used the line against rival Senator Gary Hart during a 1984 Democratic Primary debate.
The Puzzling End of "The Sopranos"
The June 10, 2007, "Sopranos" finale left millions of viewers scratching their heads—and then debating what it all meant. After 86 episodes, the Sopranos arrange to meet at a diner. Tony arrives first, then wife Carmela, then son A.J. Daughter Meadow has trouble parking her car. A suspicious-looking guy gets up from the counter and goes to the men's room. Meadow finally arrives. And, in TV's ultimate "Say Wha?" moment, the screen goes black. Some fans were angry. Many were disappointed. But all of us watched to the very end.
Geraldo Breaks Into "Al Capone's Vaults"
TV personality Geraldo Rivera was once considered a serious investigative journalist, but that ended with "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults," broadcast live on April 21, 1986. Rivera had hoodwinked over 30 million viewers with his promise of untold riches—perhaps even a body or two—to be unveiled behind a sealed door in the basement of the legendary gangster's Chicago hotel hideout. But when big reveal finally came, all we saw was dirt, more dirt and, oh, an empty bottle. The year's most-watched syndicated TV special was talked about for years only because it was such a dud.
The Shooting of J.R.
It was the TV cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers when dastardly oil baron J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was gunned down by an unseen assailant in the March 21, 1980 season finale of the hit series "Dallas"—leaving millions of viewers to spend a summer wondering, "Who shot J.R.?" The question appeared on T-shirts and bumper stickers, became the subject of office betting pools and even made its way to Buckingham Palace where England's Queen Mum asked a visiting Hagman, "I don't suppose you could tell me who shot J.R?" (Hagman didn't.) Finally, on November 21, more than 80 million viewers tuned in to to get their answer. Turns out the culprit was J.R.'s sister-in-law and spurned mistress (Mary Crosby).
Mary Cracks Up at a Funeral
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was consistently funny, but its biggest laugh ever came on October 25,1975, when Mary herself launched into an uncontrollable fit of giggles at the funeral of children's TV host Chuckles the Clown. The entire episode was a set-up, with Chuckles' death—the peanut-costumed clown killed by a rogue elephant while serving as grand master of a circus parade—inspiring newsroom humor among Mary's colleagues. much to Mary's disapproval. So when she finally did lose it, the world laughed with her.
David Caruso Tests the Limits
He lasted only one season on ABC's crime drama "NYPD Blue," but David Caruso made TV history in the first episode (September 21, 1993) when he exposed his very white buttocks to the camera—a first for network TV. Blasting the show as "soft porn," the American Family Association took out newspaper ads asking viewers to boycott the series, which only got people talking more. "NYPD Blue" emerged as a hit and other cast members subsequently got their own bottom-baring opportunities—even the unglamorous Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz). But it was Caruso who made the indelible first impression.
A Quiz Show's Moment of Truth
America became hooked on the 1950s quiz show "Twenty One" the moment a telegenic challenger—college professor and poet Charles Van Doren—took on the charmless returning champion Herb Stempel. After a series of tie matches, the clean-cut Van Doren (seen here accepting a check) emerged victorious, beginning one of the longest winning streaks in TV game show history. Just one catch: "Twenty One" was rigged, with answers provided to contestants in advance. When this was revealed—through a congressional investigation—the show disappeared, as did Charles Van Doren.
David Lynch Messes With Our Heads
TV viewers nationwide were already asking a collective "What the…?" when "Twin Peaks" producer David Lynch upped the ante in the third episode of the 1990 season by introducing diminutive actor Michael J. Anderson as the mysterious, dancing "Man From Another Place." This may have been the moment the short-lived but heatedly discussed series jumped the shark, but for a brief period of time "Twin Peaks" was the stuff TV dreams were made of.
Andy Warhol Boards "The Love Boat"
With no less than five guest stars on each episode, "The Love Boat" was in danger of running out of actors to set sail with. Perhaps that's why, in an inspired bit of casting, the show brought aboard Andy Warhol on October 12, 1985. With a plot line that reads like an entry in the legendary pop artist's deadpan diary, the episode is a highlight of the series—and perhaps of Warhol's career.
TV's First Reality Show
The 1973 series "An American Family"—a dozen half-hour episodes chronicling the daily life of the Louds, a family living in Santa Barbara, California—set the stage for "reality" TV. The show featured real-life family issues--including the marital breakup of parents Bill and Pat and the coming out of their gay son, Lance. Airing on PBS, it was hotly debated both in the press and around water coolers, catapulting the Louds to media stardom—especially Lance, who fronted a band called Mumps and wrote for several magazines before his HIV-related death in 2001.
The "Roots" Phenomenon
The 1977 "Roots" miniseries—based on Alex Haley's deeply researched novel—became a cultural sensation as it told the story of Haley's family from ancestor Kunta Kinte's enslavement to his descendants' liberation. Airing for eight consecutive nights on ABC, it remains one of the most watched and widely discussed miniseries of all time, "Roots" was nominated for 31 Emmys and won nine.
The Chevy Chase Disaster
The 1912 sinking of the Titanic occurred long before the invention of television, but eight decades later TV viewers got to witness a disaster upclose: "The Chevy Chase Show," a late-night talkfest that sank after an excruciating (and much talked-about) five weeks. Amazing that it took that long. Chase hit an iceberg during the show's very first episode when he "spontaneously" got up from behind his desk to boogie down with guest Goldie Hawn. It's perhaps the most cringe-inducing moment in TV history.
It's a Wrap
On February 28, 1983, "M*A*S*H" concluded its brilliant 256-episode run with a two-hour show that still stands as the most watched TV finale ever, attracting 121.6 million viewers. Chronicling the final days of the Korean War and culminating in tear-filled goodbyes as Alan Alda's "Hawkeye" and other characters go their separate ways, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" serves as the exemplar of how a beloved series should say farewell.
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